Dramatically declined as a vernacular language after the 14th century
Afro-AsiaticSemiticCentral SemiticNorthwest SemiticAramaicEastern AramaicSyriac
Syriac /ˈsɪri.æk/ (ܠܫܢܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ Leššānā Suryāyā സുറിയാനി Suriyāni), also known as Syriac Aramaic, is a dialect of Middle Aramaic that was once spoken across much of the Fertile Crescent and Eastern Arabia. Having first appeared in the early first century AD in Edessa, classical Syriac became a major literary language throughout the Middle East from the 4th to the 8th centuries, the classical language of Edessa, preserved in a large body of Syriac literature. Indeed, Syriac literature comprises roughly 90% of the extant Aramaic literature.
- Geographic distribution
- Literary Syriac
- Current status
Old Aramaic was adopted by the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–605 BC) when they conquered the various Aramean city-kingdoms to its west. The Achaemenid Empire, which rose after the fall of the Assyrian Empire, also adopted Old Aramaic as its official language and Old Aramaic quickly became the lingua franca of the region. During the course of the third and fourth centuries AD, the inhabitants of the region began to embrace Christianity.
Along with Latin and Greek, Syriac became one of "the three most important Christian languages in the early centuries" of the Christian Era. From the 1st century AD Syriac became the vehicle of Syriac Christianity and culture, and the liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox Church and subsequently the Church of the East, along with its descendants: the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Saint Thomas Christian Churches, and the Assyrian Pentecostal Church.
Syriac Christianity and language spread throughout Asia as far as the Indian Malabar Coast and Eastern China, and was the medium of communication and cultural dissemination for the later Arabs and, to a lesser extent, the Parthian Empire and Sassanid Empire Persians. Primarily a Christian medium of expression, Syriac had a fundamental cultural and literary influence on the development of Arabic, which largely replaced it towards the 14th century. Syriac remains the liturgical language of Syriac Christianity to this day.
Syriac was the local accent of Aramaic in Edessa, that evolved under the influence of Church of the East and Syriac Orthodox Church into its current form. Before Arabic became the dominant language, Syriac was a major language among Christian communities in the Middle East, Central Asia and Kerala, and remains so among the Assyrians and Syriac-Arameans to this day. It has been found as far afield as Hadrian's Wall in Ancient Britain, with inscriptions written by Assyrian and Aramean soldiers of the Roman Empire.
The history of Syriac can be divided into three distinct periods:
The name "Syriac", when used with no qualification, generally refers to one specific dialect of Middle Aramic but not to Old Aramaic or to the various present-day Eastern and Central Neo-Aramaic languages descended from it or from close relatives. The modern varieties are, therefore, not discussed in this article.
In 132 BC, the kingdom of Osroene was founded in Edessa and Proto-Syriac evolved in that kingdom. Many Syriac-speakers still look to Edessa as the cradle of their language. There are about eighty extant early Syriac inscriptions, dated to the first three centuries AD (the earliest example of Syriac, rather than Imperial Aramaic, is in an inscription dated to AD 6, and the earliest parchment is a deed of sale dated to AD 243). All of these early examples of the language are non-Christian. As an official language, Syriac was given a relatively coherent form, style and grammar that is lacking in other Old Eastern Aramaic dialects. The Syriac language split into a western variety used by the Syriac Orthodox Churchs in upper Mesopotamia and western Syria, and an eastern dialect used in the Sassanid controlled east used by the Church of the East.
In the 3rd century, churches in Edessa began to use Syriac as the language of worship. There is evidence that the adoption of Syriac, the language of the Assyrian people, was to effect mission. Much literary effort was put into the production of an authoritative translation of the Bible into Syriac, the Peshitta (ܦܫܝܛܬܐ Pšīṭtā). At the same time, Ephrem the Syrian was producing the most treasured collection of poetry and theology in the Syriac language.
In 489, many Syriac-speaking Christians living in the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire fled to the Sassanid Empire to escape persecution and growing animosity with Greek-speaking Christians. The Christological differences with the Church of the East led to the bitter Nestorian schism in the Syriac-speaking world. As a result, Syriac developed distinctive western and eastern varieties. Although remaining a single language with a high level of comprehension between the varieties, the two employ distinctive variations in pronunciation and writing system, and, to a lesser degree, in vocabulary.
Western Syriac is the official language of the West Syrian rite, practised by the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Malabar Independent Syrian Church, the Mar Thoma Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
Eastern Syriac is the liturgical language of the East Syrian rite, practised in modern times by the ethnic Assyrian followers of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Assyrian Pentecostal Church, the Ancient Church of the East, the Assyrian-Chaldean Catholic Church, as well as the Syro-Malabar Church in India.
Syriac literature is by far the most prodigious of the various Aramaic languages. Its corpus covers poetry, prose, theology, liturgy, hymnody, history, philosophy, science, medicine and natural history. Much of this wealth remains unavailable in critical editions or modern translation.
From the 7th century onwards, Syriac gradually gave way to Arabic as the spoken language of much of the region, excepting northern Iraq. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century, and the religiously motivated massacres of Assyrian Christians by Tamurlane further contributed to the rapid decline of the language. In many places outside of northern Mesopotamia (the Assyrian homeland), even in liturgy, it was replaced by Arabic.
Revivals of literal Syriac in recent times have led to some success with the creation of newspapers in written Syriac (ܟܬܒܢܝܐ Kṯāḇānāyā), similar to the modern standard Arabic Fuṣḥā, has been used since the early decades of the 20th century. Modern literary Syriac has also been used not only in religious literature but also in secular genres often with nationalistic themes.
Syriac is spoken as the liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox Church, as well as by some of its adherents. Syriac has been recognised as an official minority language in Iraq. It is also taught in some public schools in Iraq, Israel, Sweden, Augsburg (Germany) and Kerala (India).
In 2014, an Assyrian nursery school could finally be opened in Yeşilköy, Istanbul after waging a lawsuit against the Ministry of National Education which had denied it permission, but was required to respect non-Muslim minority rights as specified in the Treaty of Lausanne.
Many Syriac words, like those in other Semitic languages, are built out of triliteral roots, collations of three Syriac consonants with variable vowel (and some consonant) sets as a "glue". For example, the root ܫܩܠ, ŠQL, has the basic meaning of taking, and the following are some words that can be formed from this root:
Most Syriac nouns are built from triliteral roots. Nouns carry grammatical gender (masculine or feminine), they can be either singular or plural in number (a very few can be dual) and can exist in one of three grammatical states. These states should not be confused with grammatical cases in other languages.
However, very quickly in the development of Classical Syriac, the emphatic state became the ordinary form of the noun, and the absolute and construct states were relegated to certain stock phrases (for example, ܒܪ ܐܢܫܐ/ܒܪܢܫܐ, bar nāšā, "man, person", literally "son of man").
In Old and early Classical Syriac, most genitive noun relationships are built using the construct state, but contrary to the genitive case, it is the head-noun which is marked by the construct state. Thus, ܫܩ̈ܠܝ ܡܠܟܘܬܐ, šeqlay malkūṯā, means "the taxes of the kingdom". Quickly, the construct relationship was abandoned and replaced by the use of the relative particle ܕ, d-, da-. Thus, the same noun phrase becomes ܫܩ̈ܠܐ ܕܡܠܟܘܬܐ, šeqlē d-malkūṯā, where both nouns are in the emphatic state. Very closely related nouns can be drawn into a closer grammatical relationship by the addition of a pronominal suffix. Thus, the phrase can be written as ܫܩ̈ܠܝܗ ܕܡܠܟܘܬܐ, šeqlêh d-malkūṯā. In this case, both nouns continue to be in the emphatic state, but the first has the suffix that makes it literally read "her taxes" ("kingdom" is feminine), and thus is "her taxes, [those] of the kingdom".
Adjectives always agree in gender and number with the nouns they modify. Adjectives are in the absolute state if they are predicative, but agree with the state of their noun if attributive. Thus, ܒܝܫܝ̈ܢ ܫܩ̈ܠܐ, bīšīn šeqlē, means "the taxes are evil", whereas ܫܩ̈ܠܐ ܒܝ̈ܫܐ, šeqlē ḇīšē, means "evil taxes".
Most Syriac verbs are built on triliteral roots as well. Finite verbs carry person, gender (except in the first person) and number, as well as tense and conjugation. The non-finite verb forms are the infinitive and the active and passive participles.
Syriac has only two true morphological tenses: perfect and imperfect. Whereas these tenses were originally aspectual in Aramaic, they have become a truly temporal past and future tenses respectively. The present tense is usually marked with the participle followed by the subject pronoun. However, such pronouns are usually omitted in the case of the third person. This use of the participle to mark the present tense is the most common of a number of compound tenses that can be used to express varying senses of tense and aspect.
Syriac also employs verb conjugations such as are present in other Semitic languages. These are regular modifications of the verb's root to express other changes in meaning. The first conjugation is the ground state, or Pəʿal (this name models the shape of the root). form of the verb, which carries the usual meaning of the word. The next is the intensive state, or Paʿʿel, form of the verb, which usually carries an intensified meaning. The third is the extensive state, or ʾAp̄ʿel, form of the verb, which is often causative in meaning. Each of these conjugations has its parallel passive conjugation: the ʾEṯpəʿel, ʾEṯpaʿʿal and ʾEttap̄ʿal respectively. To these six cardinal conjugations are added a few irregular forms, like the Šap̄ʿel and ʾEštap̄ʿal, which generally have an extensive meaning.
Phonologically, like the other Northwest Semitic languages, Syriac has 22 consonants and 3 vowels. The consonantal phonemes are:
Phonetically, there is some variation in the pronunciation of Syriac in its various forms. The various Modern Eastern Aramaic vernaculars have quite different pronunciations, and these sometimes influence how the classical language is pronounced, for example, in public prayer. Classical Syriac has two major streams of pronunciation: western and eastern.
Syriac shares with Aramaic a set of lightly contrasted plosive/fricative pairs. In different variations of a certain lexical root, a root consonant might exist in plosive form in one variation and fricative form in another. In the Syriac alphabet, a single letter is used for each pair. Sometimes a dot is placed above the letter (qūššāyā, or strengthening; equivalent to a dagesh in Hebrew) to mark that the plosive pronunciation is required, and a dot is placed below the letter (rūkkāḵā, or softening) to mark that the fricative pronunciation is required. The pairs are:
As with other Semitic languages, Syriac has a set of five emphatic consonants. These are consonants that are articulated or released in the pharynx or slightly higher. The set consists of:
Syriac also has a rich array of sibilant consonants:
As with most Semitic languages, the vowels of Syriac are mostly subordinated to consonants. Especially in the presence of an emphatic consonant, vowels tend to become mid-centralised.
Classical Syriac had the following set of distinguishable vowels:
In the western dialect, /ɑ/ has become /o/, and the original /o/ has merged with /u/. In eastern dialects there is more fluidity in the pronunciation of front vowels, with some speakers distinguishing five qualities of such vowels, and others only distinguishing three. Vowel length is generally not important: close vowels tend to be longer than open vowels.
The open vowels form diphthongs with the approximants /j/ and /w/. In almost all dialects, the full sets of possible diphthongs collapses into two or three actual pronunciations: